A Jeep in Berlin
November 2006 Newsletter
By Gerry Molyneaux (60-63)
A spy to be, no more to be. That was the disturbing ditty that beat like a refrain through my brain when the plane taking me through the Berlin corridor hooked to the left in a fade away descent like DiMaggio sliding into third a decade before. Not enough that Khrushchev should threaten to carry out his Vienna vow to sign a separate peace with East Berlin – a real ball buster. Every time he wanted the West to jump he gave Berlin a Bronx goose – but now, before touching ground, before I was even officially an airman of the 6912 RSM, Nikita was to have me kidnapped. I really hallucinated that! After all, forty-five or so years ago I was still a teen, and apt to believe anything. With No Exit afforded me I took the existential leap of last resort. I closed out the immediate surroundings and, with eyelids shut, dove into heavenly dreams. How sweet it was, for when I awakened that morning I was not east of freedom, but on the secure surface of Tempelhof airfield. And like an out-of-towner in New York I raised my eyes to look up at a long terminal layering a solid horizon over a backdrop of blue heaven – the bluest of blue skies, not a cloud, a sight rare to Berlin, I was to learn. The cloudless clime was to Berlin what leap year is to a perpetual calendar.
Little did I know then that up those stairs to the Tempelhof snack bar, where an airman could buy a cheeseburger for 35 cents (and if luck were with him that year, from a table next to the window, could see the likes of Arlene Francis of “What’s My Line” fame, Pamela Tiffin, a flame of beauty, and that “dirty rat” accuser, James Cagney getting an earful from Billy Wilder), waiting for me inside were two of my buddies from the Syracuse language program, Tom Kleifges and Ralph Holtyn. They had gotten to Berlin months before me while I was waylaid at Goodfellow Air Force base not once but twice for more schooling. The Air Force, ahead of the other services, didn’t train but schooled. Welcoming their greetings, I felt that I was D’Artagnon joining swords with two of the Musketeers (the third, Tom Shaw, was sleeping off the weariness of working the Graveyard Shift on Dog trick). And under cover of the Tempelhof roof I was led out to Head Building East with orders in hand to give over to Dick Vivian.
Petit Richard was an experience. His hair was dark and his skin had that “soigne” shine as if never exposed to sun. He was compact and wiry like so many French are but with a slim rather than a prominent nose. If memory serves, upstairs in Voice Intercept Operations we were on Greenwich time, which was an hour ahead of Berlin time – or did that have to do with Daylight Savings time? Regardless, Richard was on a time of his own, that is, on various times of his own. His speech ticked at one rhythm while his capable hands moved at a faster beat across the keys of an Air Force issued typewriter, and the rest of him was somewhere else, except for his ears. They were always open and he never missed a beat when it came to the various conversations surrounding him. He was the Administrative Assistant to the First Shirt, the First Lieutenant, and the Head Honcho. It was he who first clued me in on what went on upstairs, stayed upstairs. Even though he never went upstairs, he knew everything that went on. The First Shirt’s brief was longer, but the same. Berlin was the Spy Capital of the World. “They know what we do at the 6912th, but they don’t know how well . . .” And the Head Honcho (not yet McCall, I recall) added that the Ushies and Hannelorres that Airmen were so eager to meet were VD certified. He guaranteed it. What the Major never made clear was just what kind of proof he had to make that statement.
No matter, Ralph Kleifges and I had seemingly miles to go under the Tempelhof roof. And on the way I learned that Berlin was divided East and West (even before the Iron Curtain made itself visible with a hundred mile wall), and within this great divide were four sectors: American, British, French, and Russian. But for the record, the 12th only monitored aircraft flying the three air corridors to and fro Berlin – and not the least said that Berlin Tempelhof was the biggest building in the world. An airman could spend forever in Berlin without ever seeing the sun just by going from bed to Head Building East inside through the terminal’s long sweeping curve. Not as high as the Empire State Building, it was longer. It took Jack Gilstrap four snaps of his camera to completely contain it, one mile long from one end to the other, six stories above ground and as many below. Not as great a stretch as the Great Wall of China, but there was no comparison in stature with what amounts to an oversized Oriental handball court. Thus spake Kleifges. And there was no arguing with him. Actually, there was always arguing with K, but in the classical sense. He loved to debate.
Half a circle away, on the opposite side of Head Building East, I confronted an elevator the likes of which I never saw before – or since. It was a series of brown wooden boxes joined bottom to top and kept in motion like a clock, up and around. Each box had room enough for two sober occupants or four squeezed drunks. There was no stopping it to get on, so it was best to be sober when you timed your leap. However, this being Berlin, Beck’s capital of the world (sorry Pilsner drinkers), sobriety was not the usual state on returning from a night out. And the community bath was something out of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, oversized and operatic in its wide-open space. With water running over my head and shoulders, I could hear the Teutonic chant: Deutschland, Deutschland uber (a propos my tin ear) Alice. What Alice was doing I dared not imagine. And the john, never to be forgotten, was a two-step plop. Wilkommen nach Berlin!
Our room was on the sixth floor where that day the light poured through the generous-sized windows. Along with Shaw, Kleifges, and Holtyn was Jack Gilstrap, a Ruski among Poles. Jack was going through Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, bemoaning the data there regarding the Russian MIGs when he was not complaining about newspaper accounts of Titov’s orbit around the earth. The Cosmonaut was not expressing exaltation when he reported, “I am eagle,” and he was no aborigine speaking a tongue unfamiliar to him. But should Gilstrap be correcting Jane’s outside the security of Head Building East. Wasn’t Berlin a spook haven where even the walls had ears?
Spooks and ghosts. The Teutonic cheek carried no proud scar, but the stone walls of buildings across from Tempelhof were rife with the hieroglyphics of war. Bombers had torn the wings off five-story tenements and brought Berlin down to earth to go up in flames. To the east of the Brandenburg Gate smoldered a totalitarian residue while here to the west, lifted from the fire, the Phoenix, replacing the eagle, had arisen, renewed and refreshed. Capitalism shined in city lights while Communism goose-stepped down a crooked-crossed path.
Two things for sure about the enlistees of the 6912th. They were all well-read and they showered each other with nicknames. Dick Vivian was the first to dub me “jeep”, but that was the title of all the newcomers. It meant the exact opposite of short-timer. The kid had to earn his first pair of long pants. Jim Warchol developed his “confidential tone” from reading Ian Fleming at Syracuse before any of us had spotted Sean Connery on the screen as a model of sophistication. I always wondered if Warchol’s name was Christian given or if it came by way of Bond – James Bond. But I’m positive Hal Linton, our Curtis LeMay, was “MISTER Linton” at Syracuse, days before Sidney Poitier was “MISTER Tibbs.” Tom Shaw was an avid reader of John O’Hara or John Steinbeck, I forget which, but John went up in my estimation because Tom read him. There was also John Hegland who knew Three Who Made A Revolution backwards and forwards, or rather dialectically. And if I remember correctly, one of his best friends was called “Sparrow.” Much better than to be known as “Worm” as Gary was, his last name now forgotten by me. Bill Werner, the Grand Enthusiast, never wrote a story he didn’t like and read them to any open ear – and Jerz, billed as “Aardvark”, must have been a reader at one time, because he was the dispenser of nicknames for the Poles. It was he who called Don Hanchey, Berlin’s first acquaintance with an American Paul Bunyan, the humanizing “Baby Huey”. And wasn’t somebody known as “The Nose”? But those of us familiar with Blackhawk comics know that Bob Thomas should have been dubbed “Olaf” rather than “Animal”. But who misnamed Bernie Malda, “Mernard”? Eldon Turner kept his Walt Whitman within finger feel, Paul A. Hand was reading what he shouldn’t and where he shouldn’t, and I appropriately carried around the New Directions paperback of The Crack-Up, and the first book I bought in Berlin had to be Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, soft-cover. There was more than one “Mac” but McClure was “Johnny Mack” and he did his stand-up on mids sitting down, recalling humorously his nighttime misadventures: “If she oinked, I would have believed it.” There was even an Elvis among us. Nicknames were our “All for one and one for all.” The “Mole” opined that the surname revealed the fundamental characteristic of a family line since its origin was a description of the founding father. According to “Tommy the K” my name meant: “bad there water,” or “stagnant pond.” I was not one to argue names. Even JFK got into the act, when he came to Berlin, announcing, “Ich bin eine Berliner,” which freely translated would be, if Jack Gilstrap doesn’t mind, “Call me a doughnut.”
Speaking of food, the first meal offered me at the Mess was S.O.S., gravy on chicken on bread. So, that evening in Berlin I slipped outside Tempelhof, turned left on Columbia Damm, crossed the four-way intersection at Platz der Luftbrucke to plant myself before an open food stand on a corner less than a block away from the base. “Eine longeweiner, bitte.” When I was handed exactly what I requested, I became emboldened to continue: “Mit pommes frites, bitte.”
Jeep? Hell: “Ich bin ... Berliner.”
© 2006, The Berlin Island Association